Coping | IBD
I’ve been anxious for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I firmly believed that if I worked hard enough, I would get what I wanted. That was totally fine until I broke down if I got grades that weren’t up to my standard or I wasn’t good at something immediately. The older I got, the more I realised that most situations and people were actually really unpredictable, and I couldn’t control them, no matter how hard I tried. At one point, I was so anxious about what could go wrong that I wouldn’t be able to order food at a restaurant or answer the phone. I was even afraid of Subway for the longest time – too many decisions to make, with the added pressure of people waiting behind me. Given I have this sort of naturally anxious personality, it seemed like a really cruel joke when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Not only is it debilitating, painful, and exhausting to live with, it also has the added bonus of fluctuating in severity every five minutes. It was essentially my worst nightmare. I suddenly couldn’t control my body, let alone my entire world.
Many studies have shown that gut health and mental health are linked, but I couldn’t tell you which one started to tank first. I really do feel that depression and anxiety perfectly mirror the ever-changing face of chronic illness. Anxiety is the rising panic that I feel when cramps are tightening around my stomach and I don’t know where the nearest bathroom is. It’s frantic planning for every possible scenario. It’s hyperventilating when the situation changes on me, and I’m not ready to face my new reality. It’s lying awake at night, worrying that I’m not doing enough and that I haven’t reached the potential I could have had if I wasn’t sick all the time. Anxiety has been a long-term companion on my journey, but it comes and goes with the illness. I was diagnosed with severe depression in my final year of university, at around the same time that I started to get really unwell.
Depression is far heavier and hangs around longer. It comes to stay the night with me in hospital, when I find myself listening to the same sad songs in the dark, hoping desperately to catch a break. It compounds the already tricky fatigue, making me sleep too much or not at all. Depression is the weight of knowing that I’m living with something really tough permanently – sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is as foggy as my poor, addled brain.
The recovery process with a chronic illness is never linear. It’s complicated and full of false starts, some really hard days, and then the little victories that I cling to. The same can be said of depression and anxiety. When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I didn’t realise that I would need to really take care of my mental health too. It’s often overwhelming trying to do it all at the same time and sometimes I don’t get it quite right. The important thing is that I pay attention to how I’m feeling and try to keep everything in perspective.
There have many times in the last five years where I was so exhausted and didn’t think I could fight anymore. Every surgery and flare take more out of me. It could be plain old stubbornness, but I like to think that I’ve got through it each time because I have more hope than I do fear. I can stop those negative patterns of thinking and recognise that my life is pretty damn good. I have a supportive family, an amazing fiancé, incredible friends, and several communities of people that have welcomed me with open arms (looking at you Girls with Guts, Legends Academy, and fellow writers from all over Australia). On the days when it’s a bit harder, I try to find time to go to the gym or listen to songs that make me smile and dance like an idiot around my kitchen.
It’s definitely not easy and I haven’t reached that point without a lot of counseling, late-night chats, and tearful phone calls (thanks Mum). I still do have days when it all gets a bit much and that’s okay. I’m not going to be positive all the time and chronic illnesses are hard work. They’re a full-time job on their own and I need to remind myself of that more than I do. I may have Crohn’s, depression, and anxiety, but there’s still the potential for so much magic and joy in my life. My future is full of adventures that I haven’t even thought of yet. It’s well worth sticking around and continuing to fight for that.